Jon Bonné on The New French Wine

Jon Bonné on The New French Wine

Few writers have captured both the glory and shame of contemporary wine and food culture better than Jon Bonné
By Anna Lee C. Iijima
Photo: Erik Castro

September 26, 2023

Few writers have captured both the glory and shame of contemporary wine and food culture better than Jon Bonné, whose unapologetic criticism and captivating storytelling has made him one of the most influential voices in food and wine today.   

Since 2020, Bonné has been the managing editor of restaurant reservation platform Resy, after a long and influential stint covering wine for the San Francisco Chronicle. His books, “The New California Wine” and “The New Wine Rules,” have become seminal reading for wine drinkers seeking a new approach to wine connoisseurship. 

Bonné spoke with The New Wine Review to discuss his new two-volume book, The New French Wine.” He also talked about the myths that surround the greatness of French wine, how good Muscadet now rivals Grand Cru Chablis and what the avant garde in wine may look like in the future.

On what “new” means in “The New French Wine”

The expected answer would be that “new” is about people who are legitimately new, or newly arrived. But the  “newness” in France is very, very complex. “Newness” has more to do with a vision of what French wine is, why it’s as great as it is, and what’s required to keep it at the forefront around the world.

It’s very hard, especially if you live in France, to clear away the layers of myth that are lacquered on top of you.

Seeking out the “new” is about taking a hard look at the mythology surrounding the greatness of French wine and determining how much is valuable and how much is crap. Because there’s a lot of crap.

Author Jon Bonne of The New French Wine

What’s new is clearing away these tropes—these ideas about style, about wood, about the Parkerization of Bordeaux or cold soak in Burgundy, whether Champagne is guided by brands or terroir, or whether Corsican wine ever can have a definition.

On how the book differs from what he set out to write

I very much thought I would be talking about the fringes—wacky folks and wacky places doing unusual things, maybe some radicals here and there. I didn’t realize how much time and effort I would be putting into very classic regions and producers.

The risk of trying to interpret France from afar is that I hadn’t counted on the idea that these very important, classic appellations were seeing just as much change as anywhere else. This wasn’t a matter of just hanging out in the Auvergne and driving the country roads of the Southwest. It was about going everywhere.

The New French Wine was always about who’s doing the hard work. But in this case, it’s doing the hard work in places that are not terra incognita. It’s seeing the big players doing really risky, radical stuff—as if all of Hollywood’s A-list suddenly decided they’re just going to do indie films, the Marvel universe begone.

On what’s driving change in French wine today

The best of what the French do happens when they’re not bound by rules and traditions. There’s this noble desire to make things better, to express the greatness of what you have, this sense of place. It’s about believing in the real value of terroir—not just as a marketing term. The flip-side is that the French can also be very lazy and fall into the absolute worst habits of just crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s and following the rules because it’s easy money.

A lot of appellations and the syndicates which govern the appellations have either broken down, or they have fallen into bad habits. The names that people relied on to sell wine aren’t selling wine anymore. Buying a bottle of Chinon does not have the resonance that it had 25 years ago.

People don’t want rubber-stamped wines from France anymore. They’re not interested in cheap table wines from France because other countries are doing it cheaper. They’re never going to undercut Spain or Italy. But you can make a Vin de France that’s weird and comes in a crown cap and charge €35 for it—there’s a market for that.

Appellations in France always banked on the notion that the appellation was more valuable. If you left it, you were forced to take a trashy Vin de Table designation and no one would take you seriously. The brand strength of appellations is largely gone—well, except in Burgundy.

If you are in the system, if you want to make appellation wine, you’re going to have to improve the rules and do the work to make things better. If you don’t, people don’t have to stick around and pay your fees and play by your rules anymore.

On how the hierarchy of taste for wine drinkers has fundamentally changed

There’s an entire generation of emerging wine drinkers who spend a lot of money but drinking Grand Cru Burgundy or cru-classé Bordeaux isn’t even in their universe. It’s just not part of their world. Maybe it’s something their parents drink, but it’s not what shows up in restaurants in Brooklyn or Manhattan. It’s not what shows up in their wine stores. It’s not what their friends drink.

“There is a completely alternative quality hierarchy that has grown up in the past, let’s say 15 years, driven largely by natural wine, but not entirely.”

Things that were “fringe” 10-15 years ago are now very much the new mainstream. There is a completely alternative quality hierarchy that has grown up in the past, let’s say 15 years, driven largely by natural wine, but not entirely.

A lot of wines that people had undervalued are spectacular. Muscadet is the perfect example. Great Muscadet today drinks like Grand Cru Chablis without costing what Grand Cru Chablis costs. It has undergone an enormous quality revolution. It has its own crus, it has terroir specificity. They outshine a lot of what was once considered the Grand Cru or Premier Cru of white wines in France.

On where the fate of wine connoisseurship lies

What was the point of the old connoisseurship aside from reinforcing a very narrow view of taste? That’s not to say that Romanée-Conti is not a remarkably good red Burgundy or Pinot Noir. But all of that was a lot more viable when the price differential between a Bourgogne AOC and Romanée-Conti was maybe five times and not 1,000 times.

Producers are pricing themselves out of relevance. There’s no point in connoisseurship when you tighten the criteria so far that almost no one can actually engage in connoisseurship. People will look for new benchmarks. Some of these new benchmarks might be questionable. In the book I call it the Nicolas Joly-led era of of natural wine where the more “fucked up” a wine was, the more people liked it. And that’s still kind of happening in Paris.

My joke from traveling in Paris this summer is that all the natural wine bars in the 11th arrondissement are moving towards more Spanish and Italian wines. French natural wine has gotten too good and too clean for them. They literally had to look to other countries to find something fucked up enough to drink. Like, there’s no mouse in France, so they had to import it from Italy.

On whether natural wines are the new mainstream

It’s important to remember that a very large part of the wine drinking world still has no idea that natural wine exists. And beyond that, there are people who have a vague idea it exists but still have no idea how to define it. That’s how something like Avaline, Cameron Diaz’s brand, can come along and just heap bullshit around the essence of natural wine. Without a definition, that’s what you get.

But the precepts that natural wine was trying to advance are all pretty widely accepted now. Better farming, nonintervention in the cellar, minimal sulfur use. Not getting in the way of the best of what wine can show. Whether you’re DRC, or in Champagne or Touraine, you’re largely following these broad-stroke rules of natural wine.

“[T]he cliquey French dudes with cigarettes and facial hair who don’t want to talk to you because you’re not cool enough—that part of the natural wine world is quickly fading.”

Where it becomes complicated is natural wine as a fashion statement versus natural wine as a means of improvement. There’s still the other half of natural wine, kind of the alt mainstream, that is very much about wacky labels and “sticking it to the man.” This was a very specific neo-Marxist movement that grew out of East Paris in the 80s. It was reactionary to the industrialism of French wine at the time during [former French president François] Mitterrand.

There are a lot of folks who embrace natural wine who feel like they’ve traditionally been kept out of the wine world. But the construct of natural wine being inclusive is not necessarily how it exists, certainly not in France.

In five years, I’m curious how much of this will sustain. You can already see that the natural wine bars that were all about Sébastian Riffault three or four years ago have all moved to different producers or different countries. They’re moving on to “natural sake” or kombucha, whatever the next thing is. None of this is necessarily bad, but the cliquey French dudes with cigarettes and facial hair who don’t want to talk to you because you’re not cool enough—that part of the natural wine world is quickly fading.

On what the new avant garde will be

In France, it’s recognizing that if you don’t claim the appellations and you don’t claim the system for yourself, you’re essentially leaving it to the worst tendencies of others.

If you look at the work of Eric Morain, the lawyer who defended all the big natural wine cases for Olivier Cousin or Alexander Bain, everyone is suing over appellations. It’s not that these vignerons wanted to exist separately from the system, they wanted the system to acknowledge them.  

The new avant garde is going to be bigger and broader and more inclusive than the tragic hipsters would like it to be. This notion of it just being a bunch of Oliver Twists, like, a bunch of urchins, is no longer.